Research Labs Aren’t Ready for Social Distancing

By Current Biodefense Graduate Student (wishing to stay anonymous)

As the scientific community ramps up for more intensive research efforts in the field of COVID-19 vaccine research, the larger question of how to conduct laboratory research under social distancing conditions remains unaddressed. For example, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease has announced their strategic plans for COVID-19 research, which are heavily dependent on benchwork and animal studies.   And both basic research fields and industry are now subject to unprecedented pressure to compress established timelines for development of new medical countermeasures.  These timelines have traditionally been held as necessary for vigorous demonstration of efficacy and safety of new drugs and vaccines before licensure for use in human populations.

Under these pressures scientists in the laboratory setting face additional challenges of trying to conduct research under social distancing policies.  Most laboratories function with space as a precious commodity.  Physical bench space to conduct experiments is co-shared by many scientists in the same lab and crowded between common use equipment.  With researchers classically working elbow to elbow, the challenge of adapting the traditional research lab to work during a pandemic is significant.   The National Institutes of Health for example, one of the largest research institutions in the world, has already noted cases of scientists on its campus who tested positive for COVID-19 before stay-at-home orders were in place.  At the broadest level, strategies for moving forward with scientists coming back to work in the lab setting are still unclear.

You would think that laboratory scientists would be ideally suited to adapt to the needs of social distancing and daily PPE use in the new COVID-19 era workplace. However, as I sit at my dining room table surrounded by my husband and my children as we complete our telework and digital classroom assignments, I don’t have a lot to look forward to when I return to work next month.  The proposed guidelines for adapting my personal research laboratory space to meet social distancing guidelines promise to create a whole new set of challenges and obstacles in addition to telework.  Though my co-workers and I have been trained in basic infection control and the proper use of PPE, we know how uncomfortable it is to wear a mask for even few hours, let alone all day.  My lab will now transition to rotating shifts 7 days a week, including nights, to minimize our physical time in the lab. I don’t look forward to having to  jostle with other coworkers to sign up for available hours;  all of us need time in the lab to get our respective research projects done. The nature of research is already inherently uncertain.  Experiments don’t always go as planned.  How will we get our research projects done when we need to repeat an experiment suddenly and no time slots in the lab are available?  Some work is time sensitive because of cell cultures or animal experiments.  Sanitizing our desks, workspaces, and common equipment after each use is also a new requirement.  In addition, we’ve lost our common areas for eating lunch and our desks are located within the lab area so we can’t eat there either.  These small social concerns add an additional layer of stress to an already difficult workplace situation.

As we face going back to work in the research setting, the challenges of social distancing while producing quality scientific data creates many uncertainties.  Research laboratories in industry, academia, and government will have to face the challenge of implementing policies to keep scientists safe while at the same time producing research at a faster rate than ever before.  The practice of scientific research in the pandemic era is itself a new field.


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